What was Dale Wimbrow thinking on the day in 1934 when he put those words on paper? He could not have known in that moment how his words would spread in the decades that followed like inspirational wildfire, giving strength to hundreds, then thousands, and then millions of men and women as they stood up to life’s challenges. Those words are still doing good works today.
While researching Wimbrow’s life, I had a fleeting thought that perhaps he was just going through the motions that day. It would be understandable, actually. By this point, he was something of a falling star. His days as a musical sensation with a nationwide audience were drawing to a close. No longer did he host shows on the biggest radio station in the land. Journalists weren’t knocking at his door anymore—they were mostly done with human-interest stories about the happy-go-lucky guy from Whaleyville, Md. with his round face and his messy mop of strawberry-blond hair.
So Wimbrow started doing the sorts of things that falling stars did in his day. In modern times, that might mean doing cheesy bits on reality TV and game shows. In the 1930s, it meant joining a panel of celebrities put together by The American magazine and assigned to write replies to a poignant letter from a young reader. That girl wanted to know why she should bother to become an honest adult, considering the various ways her upstanding father had been cheated and humiliated in life.
Wimbrow’s Words Go Wild
The day came. Wimbrow sat down to write. Did he use a pen or a typewriter? Did he need to noodle around on his ukulele to get his thoughts straight? After the magazine published a little poem he wrote for that girl, someone, somewhere took the words to heart. That someone shared them with a neighbor. That neighbor mailed those words to a relative, and that relative put the poem on display at the office.
So it went, on and on and on, through years, and then decades. Wimbrow’s words went this way and that, hither and yon. They ended up in corporate boardrooms, on church bulletin boards, in self-help manuals, behind ornate frames, crumpled up in wallets, in high school oratory contests, and—especially, most especially—at meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous. The AA crowd latched onto Wimbrow’s words like there was no tomorrow, sharing them with most every new arrival as if to say: “Here is a good place to start thinking about your new one-day-at-a-time life.”
Here is the weird thing, though: As Wimbrow’s words rocketed around the world, they got detached from the name of their author. Often, the words were credited to “Anonymous.” But there were countless other contenders, too. A schoolteacher from Louisiana. A public relations guy from Avon. A recovering drunk in Colorado. A cult rock band out of Detroit. The saddest bit of attribution I came across was to an unnamed dead drug addict whose mother supposedly was so embarrassed by her son’s fatal weakness that she refused to share his name with the public.
Pretty much everybody and anybody got credit, except for the happy-go-lucky guy from Whaleyville. Let’s go back and meet him, shall we? His story raises lots of interesting questions:
- How much does it matter—or should it matter—whether we get credit for good deeds?
- How should we react when long-term health problems or other setbacks ruin our best-laid plans for life?
- How did a white boy from Whaleyville who grew up in segregation times end up thinking of a benefit concert he did for a black church outside of that town as perhaps the most memorable night of his life?
- Did Wimbrow’s near-death experiences play a role in the decisions he made in life?
From Childhood to Poison Gas
Peter Dale Wimbrow came into the world on June 6, 1895. Whaleyville had a population of 258 then. It’s closer to 150 today.
If you are headed to Ocean City along Route 50, Whaleyville is one in a run of small towns east of Salisbury. Parsonsburg, Pittsville, Willards, then Whaleyville. The next time you zoom by, take a minute and pull off the highway. According to the Maryland Historical Trust, the architectural and geographical landscape of Dale Wimbrow’s childhood is still very much in evidence: “Few modern intrusions have altered the nineteenth-century village character.”
During Wimbrow’s childhood, timbering was the center of economic activity in Whaleyville, as it had been through many decades before that. But the timbering era was coming to a close. The last of the good trees in the area would be cleared and harvested by the time of World War I.
Dale’s father, who had the glorious first name of Nutter, was a serial entrepreneur. After moving to Whaleyville from Salisbury, Nutter Wimbrow opened a general store, launched a sawmill, started a basket-making company, and built a cannery. Nutter also built a fine reputation for himself—he ended up winning election to the state House of Delegates.
Dale must have caught the music bug during his childhood, but I don’t know when or how it happened. In my research to date, those childhood years remain a blank slate all the way up to the point where he dropped out of Western Maryland College to sign up for the army just after World War I broke out in 1917.
He ended up in the midst of the largest and bloodiest encounter of that war, the Meuse-Argonne Forest Offensive. This is from a newspaper profile of Wimbrow written decades after the war:
[Dale Wimbrow’s] “closest call with the inevitable Reaper was in the Argonne Forest during the First World War. Seriously wounded and gassed, he was consigned to [an] ambulance which, in the confusion [of the battle scene], drove off without him. Hours later, [while in another ambulance], he rumbled past what was left of [that first] ambulance: it had been blown to bits.”
Wimbrow was back on his feet soon enough, but that mustard gas would stay in his body for the long term. In his 30s, it caused throat problems that brought his singing career to a premature close. In his 40s, it led to eyesight issues that short-circuited fledgling second careers in painting and photography. There’s no telling whether the gas was involved in his death from a heart attack at the age of 58.
From Backroads to Broadway Lights
Like most “overnight” sensations, Dale Wimbrow worked his tail off for years before bursting onto the national music scene. After returning from World War I, he took day jobs as a traveling salesman and a civil engineer, then played gigs by night in clubs and tried his hand at vaudeville stage shows, too. The ukulele was his favorite instrument. (Later, when he was a big star, he would invent the “Wimbrola,” a six-string alternative to the ukulele that had a “mellower” sound.)
He became a national name at about the age of 30, in 1925. Here is the Baltimore Sun that year:
“One of these Maryland boys, a red-headed chap weighing about 200 pounds, seeped into New York last week and pretty near conquered the playgoing world. … He shook off some of the dust of Whaleyville … to sing some of his ukulele ditties up in the big town. …”
That story contained the news that Wimbrow had signed a recording contract with an unnamed national company. Plus, a theatrical producer had his eye on Wimbrow for a recurring role on one of the biggest vaudeville revues in the Big Apple.
To readers outside Delmarva, this probably looked like it happened in the blink of an eye. But here is Wimbrow, recounting just a little bit of the endless barnstorming that led up to his big break.
“Having no money [to travel], we took [our new song] around the Shore. … We packed Lee Insley’s Arcade Theater [in Salisbury] three nights in a row. Believe me, … that was big time for this Whaleyviller with hay in his hair. We did well in Princess Anne–even Chincoteague, Virginia.
“We did a ‘land office’ box office until we [got to] Whaleyville. We felt that we must by all means include the good old home town in the itinerary. So we did. When it came time to roll up the curtain we gave a peep out and how many people were in the audience, do you think? There were eight people, including the dog under the stove. I don’t remember ever feeling more humiliated.”
By the time he wrote those words Wimbrow could afford to laugh about nights like that. In the late 1920s he recorded for Columbia and Decca, two of the very best labels in the land. He was standing front and center on New York City stages, performing for crowds that included the biggest celebrities of his day. Best of all, right around this same time, he met and married his true love, a radio-show writer named Dorothy Livezy.
During that musical heyday Dale Wimbrow embraced several nicknames. Sometimes he was “The Del-Mar-Va Songster.” Down South he was “The Mississippi Minstrel.” And with tongue in cheek, he claimed the title of “Outstanding Loafer of the Good Old Eastern Shore.” That last one is a reference to one of his best known songs, “The Good Old Eastern Shore.” (At the end here, I’ll include links so that you can listen to that and several other Wimbrow songs.)
Big Star with a Big Heart
We’ve all read about people who got big heads after becoming stars, but that doesn’t seem to have happened in this case. At the height of his fame, Wimbrow often pitched in for good causes. In 1924, he donated proceeds from a new song to benefit the W. Freeland Kendrick Convalescent Home for Crippled Children in Philadelphia. The song, “Sunshine,” includes these lyrics:
“After the darkest hours
Then comes the break of day
So never grieve
But try to believe
The storm clouds will roll away.”
The year 1926 might have been Wimbrow’s peak. The nation’s biggest radio station, WJZ in New York City, did a series of shows that year called “The Del-Mar-Va Hour” that showcased regional talent and culture. It became a big national hit, with Dale Wimbrow as a star attraction and “The Good Old Eastern Shore” as the theme song.
At some point during that same year, Wimbrow returned home to do a benefit concert to raise funds to build an addition for Pullet’s Chapel, the black church in Whaleyville. Despite the segregation ethos of those times, this did not come as a surprise during the course of my research. I had already come across a couple of references to the way Wimbrow wrote some songs patterned after “negro spirituals.” I had already started to wonder if the black community in Whaleyville played a big role in his musical upbringing.
This thread in Wimbrow’s story grew even stronger when I came across an essay he wrote later in life about the night of his Pullet’s Chapel benefit concert.
“They came from Parsonsburg in buses, and Jenkins Neck in Carry-alls. They came in Packards, one-lung jalopies, and ox carts. They were packed fifty deep outside … and inside, it would have taken a hydraulic press to pack ‘em in tighter.”
He claims in that essay that the raucous, overflow crowd at Pullets inspired him to play the best and most satisfying show of his career.
“Finally, limp and wet with the sweat of fatigue I had to sign off. … I shall never forget that night.”
Nationally, the accolades kept on coming, but only for a few more years. Wimbrow’s name appeared frequently in newspapers up and down the Eastern Seaboard, through the Deep South, and into the Midwest. His song “Accordion Joe” was covered by Duke Ellington (you can hear it here). I’ve seen numerous mentions that Judy Garland recorded one of his songs, but I haven’t been able to track down the title or a recording.
Falling Star: What To Do When Life Goes South?
Dale Wimbrow kept playing music through the 1930s, but his popularity waned slowly but surely as his singing voice lost ground in its battle with the long-term effects of that mustard gas he’d inhaled in the Argonne Forest during World War I.
Dale and Dorothy Wimbrow had two children, Salliedale and Peter. Salliedale grew up to become a realtor in Florida. A community newspaper there did a routine “Focus on Seniors” feature story about her when she was 70 years old, in 1998. In that interview, Salliedale recalled the itinerant years of her childhood by saying that she attended 24 different schools in the 1930s while her father chased an endless parade of radio shows, vaudeville gigs, and concert tours.
Basically, Salliedale laughed, “I grew up in the back seat of a car.”
You can get a sense in the old newspapers that Dale Wimbrow knew the end was nigh, at least as far as singing was concerned. Perhaps he looked to his serial entrepreneur of a father for inspiration. He launched a line of hand-crafted walking sticks and canes, made from exotic woods and featuring handles in the shape of ibises and other creatures. The singer Rudy Vallee was a customer. Wimbrow tried his hand at oil painting and photography, but it soon became apparent that the mustard gas was taking a toll on his eyesight.
The hammer came down in 1939. In later newspaper articles, both Wimbrow children remember the family’s move to Florida as a dark time. A doctor had predicted their father would die soon, probably within six months. That doctor recommended a warmer climate. They tried Miami for a while, but quickly migrated up the Atlantic Coast a bit, to a rural area outside of Sebastian known as Indian River.
Six months came and went. Then a year. Then more years. Somewhere along the way, Dale Wimbrow stopped waiting on that death sentence and jumped back in action. In the late 1940s, he crawled out on a limb with a new business venture. The way he recalls that start-up happening makes it sound like a reprise of those penniless days when he started barnstorming through Delmarva with his ukulele.
“My wife was off visiting in Key West, and as usual when the ol’ cat was away, this mouse played. … I went into business establishments and said just this: ‘I’m going to start a newspaper [for the communities] along the Indian River. … If you feel like coming along, give me four week’s advertising in advance and we’ll publish for at least a month. If I can’t make it go, I’ll send your money back to you. So help me, the merchants handed over the advertising money.
“When my wife got off the train and said, ‘And what have you been doing since I’ve been out of sight?’ I answered, ‘We’ve done got us a newspaper.”
Final Days and Homeward Bound
It wasn’t the bright lights of New York City, but Wimbrow made a nice name for himself in South Florida. His paper won several awards for journalistic excellence. The best of his essays and editorials on local affairs were collected into a book, Swamp Cabbage and Angel Wings. In his mind, the big picture looked like this:
“The awards in money are not great. [But] it is a living, and as such, I am grateful for it.”
From his perch as a local celebrity, Wimbrow also got the opportunity to do some public speaking. He addressed lots of church groups, women’s clubs, and veterans’ associations. His talks usually focused on how Christian values might and should play out in an increasingly modern world.
Faith is a big part of Wimbrow’s story, too. Here is a childhood memory shared by his son, Peter:
“I remember as a young boy watching him, as he did every night of his life, get down on his knees by the bed and in silent reverence, with his hands clasped, say his prayers.”
There is no telling how much that faith had to do with Dale Wimbrow’s ability to bounce back time and again in life, reaching for the stars as a young man and then reinventing himself every time his various plans went awry in his later years. On Jan. 23, 1954, he was on stage speaking to an American Legion gathering in Vero Beach when he suffered a heart attack and collapsed. He died three days later, at the age of 58.
His body was returned home to a resting place in the Dale family cemetery in Whaleyville.
Words Matter: ‘The Guy in the Glass’
If one quote from the lyrics and writings of Dale Wimbrow stands out above all others, it’s this one, about his final professional chapter, as a newspaperman:
“Perhaps the Indian River News isn’t that important, but it still puts words down in black and white [and] words are powerful things.”
By this point, 1951, seventeen years had passed since our starting point here, that time in 1934 when The American magazine asked our falling star to respond to that young girl who had doubts about whether she should lead an “honest” life. Wimbrow’s reply was titled “The Guy in the Glass:”
When you get what you want in your struggle for pelf,
And the world makes you King for a day,
Then go to the mirror and look at yourself,
And see what that guy has to say.
For it isn’t your Father, or Mother, or Wife,
Who judgment upon you must pass.
The feller whose verdict counts most in your life
Is the guy staring back from the glass.
He’s the feller to please, never mind all the rest,
For he’s with you clear up to the end,
And you’ve passed your most dangerous, difficult test
If the guy in the glass is your friend.
You may be like Jack Horner and “chisel” a plum,
And think you’re a wonderful guy,
But the man in the glass says you’re only a bum
If you can’t look him straight in the eye.
You can fool the whole world down the pathway of years,
And get pats on the back as you pass,
But your final reward will be heartaches and tears
If you’ve cheated the guy in the glass.
Perhaps you’ve come across this poem in your journey through life. Millions upon millions of people have. It’s still a staple with the Alcoholics Anonymous crowd. Super Bowl-winning football coach Bill Parcells recited the poem at his retirement press conference. The poem became quite a big deal in England when soccer coach Nigel Adkins recited it from memory after his Southampton Football Club lost a tough match to an archrival. “The Guy in the Glass” has been read into the Congressional Record several times.
And it really was put to raucous 1960s garage-rock music by that cult band from Detroit, The Underdogs. You can listen to them perform Wimbrow’s poem here.
As I mentioned, this all started happening back in the 1940s and 1950s when Dale Wimbrow was still alive. It bothered him, the way he rarely got credit for his words. It angered him when people tried to claim those words as their own. In 1947 Wimbrow filed a lawsuit against an author from Catonsville, Md. who had included “The Guy in the Glass” in a book in a way that made it look like he was the author of the poem.
The issue of who should get credit for “The Guy in the Glass” was settled once and for all by Ann Landers, the famed syndicated advice columnist whose work appeared in newspapers all over the country. In October 1983, she published “The Guy in the Glass” and attributed it to a dead drug addict. Letters poured in, claiming she had gotten it wrong, that someone else wrote the poem. The problem was, each of those letters offered up a different name as the true and rightful author.
Landers and her staff dug through all those candidates and published a followup the next month, thanking Peter Wimbrow for writing in and telling the world that those words were indeed written by his father back in 1934. Years later, Peter and his sister put up a ramshackle website devoted to “The Guy in the Glass.” Still trying to set the record straight about authorship of the poem, here is what one of them wrote:
“[Our father’s words have] touched the souls of millions of people the world over. … [He] was the most gifted and caring person we ever knew…. He would have wanted his work to be a gift and so do we. All we ask is that you properly credit him somewhere in your publication as the author.”
Perhaps it’s too much to ask, but I am thinking it would be really great if those credit lines also mentioned that the author hailed from our own little Whaleyville, Md.
–Written by Jim Duffy for Secrets of the Eastern Shore/Whimbrel Creations LLC. All rights reserved. Posted on May 23, 2020.
NOTES & LINKS
- This is a draft chapter using a concept that I think might become a book someday. I don’t have a title yet, but it will tell stories of life journeys on Delmarva that have lessons to teach us today. Feedback on this piece or the larger idea is greatly appreciated at SecretsoftheEasternShore@gmail.com.
- The word at the end of the first line of “The Guy in the Glass” really is pelf. If you look it up, you will see that it means “money, especially when gained in a dishonest or dishonorable way.”
- As promised, here are some links to Wimbrow songs. You can listen to “The Good Old Eastern Shore” here. Another Wimbrow hit with a local angle is “When Old Pete Daley Plays His Ukulele Down in Whaleyville.” You can listen to that here. (Wimbrow sometimes used “Pete Daley” as a stage name.) “The County Fair in Delaware” is another Wimbrow gem with a local angle. Listen to it here. If that sampling strikes your fancy, here is a broader collection of Wimbrow songs listed on the Internet Archive.
- Two music professors at Salisbury University, Louise Anderson and Diana Wagner, have latched on the Wimbrow’s musical legacy and are doing their best to keep it alive. Read about their 2019 performance of Wimbrow songs here.
- That ramshackle website put up by the Wimbrow children in tribute to their father is still up and running at this link.
- If I am reading things correctly, it seems that a “Wimbrola” hand-crafted by Dale Wimbrow himself (and signed, no less) is available for sale at this site. Also, it seems that a Wimbrow–autographed copy of “The Guy in the Glass” is available here.
- Thank you for reading!